“What came first? The music or the misery?”
Twenty years ago, John Cusack played record store sad-sack (and nearly every guy you’ll meet on Twitter) Rob Gordon in the adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel, High Fidelity. The novel and subsequent film inspired a legion of media lovers for better and worse, culminating in a string of thinkpieces we’re still seeing today about how a movie or song affected our lives. This is all to say that the concept of rebooting High Fidelity for 2020 audiences always seemed weird. The movie came out before the era of Spotify and record sales not being the sole arbiter of success; the book coming out preceding the invention of the iPod and Limewire.
And yet, while technology changed, the feelings both pieces of media conveyed hadn’t. In watching Hulu’s new series, it’s obvious there just wasn’t anything new to say. High Fidelity (2020) is a gender-swapped reboot in some of the worst ways, doing little more than recreating moments from the movie (gasp) with a woman! A few moments of brightness when the source material is cast aside show promise, but for this to be anything more than a one-season wonder, the series is going to have to blow up the material that made it famous.
It’s immediately jarring how closely the series’ first several episodes – there are 10 altogether – conforms to the Stephen Frears-directed movie. Our new Rob, short for Robin, played by Zoe Kravitz, is introduced in a scene so similar to the opening of the movie that you expect Cusack to be recording his lines right next to her. She’s breaking up with her boyfriend, Mac (Kingsley Ben-Adir), leading into her discussing her top five most heartbreaking break-ups. From there, the movie goes down a path to outright imitate the original movie. Rob works at a record store with two co-workers who “just started showing up.” In a slight divergence from the feature one of them is her ex-boyfriend, Simon (David H. Holmes) and the overly exuberant Cherise (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). From there the trio engage in nearly all the moments you’ll recall Cusack, Todd Louiso, and Jack Black engaging in, from discussing individual playlists to have critiquing who sang “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” better, Frankie Valli or Lauryn Hill.
But, like that initial song discussion, the singers may be different but the song is the same. There’s little that truly makes this incarnation of High Fidelity stand on its own. Like the previous incarnation of Rob, Kravitz’s take is that of a cool girl…but no one knows it. As the series develops we’re told that Rob doesn’t have her life together but it kinda seems like she does. For starters, she lives in a fairly spacious New York apartment that she can afford once Mac moves out. She has stable friendships, a loving family, and a presumably successful business! But, where High Fidelity in 2000 used Rob’s trip down relationship lane to show that he is the problem, it doesn’t work here. Kravitz’s Rob becomes the hot girl complaining about why no one loves her and, thus, her only problem in life is that she doesn’t have a relationship to define her. What’s more frustrating is that this apathetic character ends up dampening Kravitz’s natural spark. She’s just left to look dour, only coming alive when she’s talking about music and giving audiences’ a glimpse of what the character could be.
Kravitz is certainly surrounded by a bevy of supporting players who also show promise if the series divorces them from their original counterparts. Holmes’ Simon is a hybrid of Rob’s former lover and best friend who, later in the season, gets an episode to show off the sensitivity and warmth the actor brings to the role. Much like Jack Black in 2000, Randolph’s character will either be perceived as the scene-stealer or utterly annoying; I veer towards the former. What Randolph brings to the character of Cherise is a woman who, in contrast to Rob, really is living her best life. Where Kravitz’s performance is muted, Randolph’s is lively and fun. If anything this proves Randolph needs to be leading more television series.
The ten episodes also set up a bare modicum of plot that feels slight. A two-hour movie needed to balance plot with levity and moments of emotion but here everything is stretched to beyond the breaking point. Rob deals with Mac dumping her before he moves to London, moves back again, and brings with him a new girlfriend named Lily. Simultaneously, Rob finds herself in a series of bad relationships, particularly with rocker Liam (Thomas Doherty) who is just a white version of the same character Kravitz’s own mother, Lisa Bonet, played in the feature film. These relationships lack any punch since they take so long to develop compared to the feature where they were fleshed out in a small period of time.
At the end of the day, it’s hard to justify sitting down to watch ten 30-minute episodes of a series that doesn’t necessarily want to stretch. The side characters grow and develop but Rob comes out as a stagnant character. Maybe now that the first season is established, subsequent seasons can blossom beyond Rob dating men and critiquing music. High Fidelity may have a rollicking soundtrack, both on-screen and in its pace, but its depth is fairly shallow.
Rating: ★★ Fair